Case Studies
Post-Communism problems

INTERVIEW: Russia’s complicated relations with its communist past, 02. January 2020

Irina Flige is the director of the St. Petersburg (Russia) Memorial Research and Information Centre, an NGO researching Soviet repressions and defending human rights. Flige spoke about the situation of research on red terror victims’ mass burial sites in Russia at the conference “Necropolis of Communist Terror”. The event was held in November 2019 in Tallinn, Estonia in cooperation of Memorial and the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory. Sergei Metlev interviewed Mrs Flige during the conference. 

Irina Flige. Picture:

SM: Do historians researching repressions in Russia feel they have enough support and funds? What role do they play in the society?

IF: An interest in the resistance against a criminal regime and the GULAG rose rapidly at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. A great desire to analyse the Soviet trauma emerged. The state was on the verge of change: such unanimity in Russian society is rare. Consensually, people focused on terror because they believed that understanding its mechanism is the key to successful reforms. The government agreed completely on Stalinism regarding the assessment that the arrests, imprisonments and murders were crimes committed by the state. Everyone understood that it is impossible to move forward if we do not exhaust the subject and fail to speak about the crimes. The later period caused disagreements.

After the victory in 1991 against the communist coup, Yeltsin passed a couple of ukases (presidential decree) on the communist party and the KGB. Yet, in 1992, the constitutional court softened these legislations. They were not declared void, but the most important words about criminality and proscription were removed from the assessment of Soviet authorities. The subject was forgotten. The historians researching terror continued their work on a now marginal topic for the next 10-15 years.

The society believed they have heard it all and know everything about it. People said: “Enough!” despite not knowing the facts, the fate of the families and not understanding the mechanism of terror. 1993-2005 was the low point in terms of interest in history. No one bothered people who were engaged in such a peripheral subject field.

Why did the public suddenly lose interest in 1993?

At the turn of the 1980 and 1990s, there was a dispute over history in Russia. Starting from 1987 people started to come out with slogans such as “Where are our fathers’ graves?”, “Open the archives!” etc. This mass movement emerged in all USSR cities. Memorial was created as a result of these events. In 1989, over 200 Memorial organisations gathered at a conference in Moscow.

If we say that terror started with the Bolsheviks’ coup, then it implies the illegality of the entire Soviet regime. The takeover in 1991 happened just when everyone had reached a consensus on this issue. The SCSE or the State Committee on the State of Emergency attempted a coup in August 1991 to maintain the Communist Party and the dictatorship of the USSR. One of their slogans was “Hands off our glorious history!”. After the coup had lost, some argued that what matters most is beating the SCSE, and this is all the history we need. That was it, the communists had lost. However, it was assumed we would manage without declaring the Communist Party criminal. That was naturally quite convenient.

Lustration, a process known from many Eastern Bloc countries, began in Russia with Yeltsin’s ukases. You mentioned the failed investigation by the constitutional court on the legality of Soviet authorities. It turns out that lustration failed due to judicial, not political arguments?

Truthfully, no one differentiated between the judicial and the political in 1991. We had lived for some time in a situation where laws and justice were two different things. In a word, things were in disarray. Yeltsin passed the ukases, which were to become laws. However, the constitutional court disregarded them. A public discussion on lustration took place from 1991-1993 under a liberal democratic slogan “Stop the witch hunt”. The society, not the authorities, demanded this. Giving up on the witch hunt was a very common position also in Memorial and among former dissidents. 

So the research of terror was neither supported nor obstructed by the government in the first years of the Russian Federation?

Indeed. It was a temporary gift, one we can only dream of now. The society had no interest in the research of terror. What to do if there is no demand, but no ban either? The local history museums all over the country faced the same situation as Memorial. Someone was always going against the will of the director who did not approve of a topic. Therefore, working on it had become a “voluntary” pursuit, despite the researcher being on the payroll of the museum. The years the issue was marginalised was a time to gather documents, to think and not perpetually strive to release information.

2005, however, was the beginning of a major setback.

Putinism began to take shape on the day that Putin started his term. The podpolkovnik “czar” of the KGB was inaugurated on 7 May 2000 and blessed by agent Drozdov, whose name is well known in Estonia [Flige is referring to the suspicion that the Estonian-born Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and Russia was cooperating with the KGB under the codename Drozdov – edit.]. The Russian Orthodox Church keeps quiet, as does the whole of Russia.

Another crucial episode is 20 December 2000. First, this date has been an official anniversary of the Cheka aka the Extraordinary Commission [the first central repressive organ in Bolshevist Russia – edit.] since its foundation in 1917. On this day, Russia’s new anthem, essentially a slightly altered version of Soviet Union’s anthem, was approved. In the lyrics, the words “God”, “Fatherland” and “Superpower” replaced “Lenin”, “Communism” and “Party”. The Russian authorities repelled our research topics in the next five years, but they had no ideology. It is quite tricky to create one out of the blue, so it took several years. Establishing an ideology goes hand in hand with a great demand for historical memory. Ideologies cannot exist without turning to its historical roots. And then it turned out that about 1000 memorials had been erected, burial sites had been found and books had been published already without state involvement.

So the matter of historical memory and the victims of repressions had been unrestrained, and the state decided to “nationalise” it. Is there enough academic freedom in Russia’s universities to research Soviet repressions from any angle or is it brutally suppressed? 

It is suppressed, but not brutally. The Soviet regime committed many crimes, mostly crimes against humanity. However, there are other offences, such as the destruction of historical research, which cannot be restored overnight. In the 1990s, professional historians came to our field one by one – there was no school of thought. When a student began to choose a topic for their dissertation, they lacked supervisors. What should they have done? The old lecturers were still working and not every student was prepared to oppose them.

Jokingly: a historian specialised in ancient history was not going to retrain. The people researching the Soviet period in the 1990s simply passed away or moved to Europe, although that did not always guarantee success either.

Thus, just a few people would be able to research repressions? Even if serious changes happened now in Russia, e.g. the pressure from the authorities eases up?

In the 1990s, people could do things they had dreamt of for a long time. The situation has changed: we now have Putin’s ideology and one is expected to laud the glory of the empire and the superpower. Note that terror’s history is in it: the figures are adequate, events are named. However, consider the tone. Simply: yes, there were victims. A Russian is generally a patient person: one feels bad for the victim and yet, “We built, we won,” etc. This attitude rehabilitates terror as such, but it also suggests the state considers terror a successful way of guiding its citizens. This principle “there were victims, but the state was established” justifies terror completely.

How to keep the research of repressions from fading completely? How to make sure the knowledge reaches interested people, either as books or by other means?

Our integrated projects are very popular. Jan Rachinsky was the first in Memorial’s Moscow department to start a project of creating a common database. It assembled all published books on repressed people from different regions, even from small villages. At the moment, this database has information on approximately 3 million people. You can do the math how many years we will need at this rate if the base number is 12-14 million victims.

There are many success stories: a published book or the opening of an extraordinary exhibition. In 2003, I created an integrated programme “The Necropolis of Terror and GULAG”, in the frame of which we collect information about all the crime locations that we have found, as the state does not register them. This is an important achievement because already by 2010, some burial sites that were found in the 1990s were lost.

People visited the sites, journalists wrote stories and suddenly, they are gone! I knew there was a cemetery just outside a town in Siberia. I ran around the town in 2003 during an expedition, trying to find someone to give me the directions. I was desperate: we found it and now it is lost again! This is when I came up with the Necropolis of Terror project idea.

In what situation is the research on mass graves in Russia? How many exhumed and identified victims have there been?

Searching for the graves of victims killed or executed in inhumane conditions was a domestic matter in the early 1990s. The children and spouses of the victims were still alive. This was a rather recent pain, even though 10, 20 or 30 years had passed. Searching for these graves obviously had a national-regional nature: Estonians were looking for Estonians, Latvians for Latvians, etc. People searched in specific regions: if a person had been taken to Tomsk, then there was no point looking for them in Ufa. People had great success in the beginning of the 1990s. In town X, two 80-year-old men showed young activists where people had been shot or buried near a camp. The papers of the day have lots of similar stories, these findings came every day. From 1993, everything declined. The current situation is still traumatic, but in a much subtler form: nowadays people are looking for their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Inevitably, it is history.

You mentioned that all of Russia is full of memorial sites. Do people go there when they please or are the visits coordinated by going on certain dates?

Of course, there is a lot of commemoration, especially since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war. The situation changed drastically in the spring of 2014. The Russian government did not cross the line in a day. The severe crimes of Putin and other government officials had become increasingly frequent. The attack on Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea was the final straw. Suddenly, civic action was taken and protests started. People returned to history, starting with the current crimes of the state and finishing with past ones. But in what form? Now people come to Memorial and say: “Tell us, how did they torture people in 1937?”

Can the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea be associated with a totalitarian past?

This is an international crime committed by Putin. Many people have reacted by turning to history. As discussed earlier, the war over history has not disappeared. Now, many sites of memory are places to express solidarity with current political prisoners. Such places attract people. For example, on 5 August, about 300 people come to a forest in Sandarmokh in Karelia and discuss the connection between the past and present. The historical memory is forcefully activated as they debate on the issue of support for nowadays’ political prisoners. At the moment, there is an interest in everything. What was allowed? How were parcels delivered at the end of the Soviet era? What was taken to friends who were in a camp? The younger generation ask me if they let you bring tea to the prisoners. Tea was permitted, but coffee was not. When my husband was in a camp in the 1960s, both tea and coffee were allowed.

What is your opinion on people the Soviet regime destroyed, but who had previously worked in security institutions? In Estonia, it is obvious: Estonia was occupied and those who knowingly decided to serve the Soviet regime cannot be considered its innocent victims. However, in Russia, the situation is far more complex.

There is no lustration law in Russia, but the question has been raised. Yezhov [one of the most important enforcers of terror as the People's Commissar for Internal Affairs aka the head of the NKVD, executed in 1940 – edit.] was shot as a Japanese spy, which was untrue. Nothing suggests to his crimes in the court file. There ought to be two separate processes for one person. He cannot be rehabilitated, because he is a criminal, but there are no documents to prove that he is a criminal. This is the main cause of discontent. All executioners have not been killed or imprisoned. We do not have a law calling terror a crime committed by the state.

Has there been at least one case in Russia, where an investigation on Soviet repressions has also been concluded or at least reached a reasonable phase?

No. There have been investigations during the two thaws: in 1939 and in Khrushchev’s term, but they were quite superficial. Nothing similar has occurred in the last 30 years. The rehabilitation of Yezhov is often demanded in Russia because he really was neither a Japanese nor an English spy.

Could the growing interest in 20th century history in Russia lead to a clear condemnation of the communist ideology and regime by most of the population? Perhaps it might at least lead to the possibility of equating Stalin regime’s repressions in the Soviet Union with the crimes of Nazi Germany?

There has been an explosive interest in Soviet state terror in Russia – people wish to understand its mechanism.  The typology of modern state terror is similar to that of the Soviet Union’s. Still, the society is not ready for a general condemnation and likening. Putinism, after all, is not communism. Of course, it is possible to compare Putin and the Soviet regime: the representatives of both systems think they have a right to kill. There are two sides at war in Russia. One believes that the state is entitled to kill anyone if it is in the interests of the country. The other side, the society, says that you have no such authority because I have a right to life and freedom. This is everyday life in Russia.